According to my rudimentary math skills—don’t worry, I used a calculator—the NBA’s three-quarter mark actually happens at halftime of each team’s 62nd game of the season.
Since it’s pretty tough to evaluate the status of such teams midway through a game, it’s usually best to go with approximations. So with that, welcome to the three-quarter mark check-in with teams around the Association. As always, we’ll be looking at teams not only from the lens of how they have performed this season but how they would stack up against one another in a seven-game series. The latter criterion is used simply as a tiebreaker in most cases—actual team performance is worth approximately 90 percent of my evaluations—it does still play a part in answering who is the best team in the NBA.
So with that in mind, here is a look at how each team stacks up as we reach the 75 percent mark in the 2012-13 NBA regular season.
1. Miami Heat
Most pundits didn’t need this 16-game winning streak to know that the Heat were still the league’s best team. It’s been readily apparent that LeBron James and Co. had coasted through some of the first half. They had allowed far too many mediocre teams to stick around and were playing down to their competition.
However, this streak should be a reminder to every contending team about who is the big dog in the NBA. Put any team’s best game versus Miami’s best and the former side is getting beaten by 10-plus points.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
Serge Ibaka’s groin punch on Blake Griffin should be enough for most mainstream fans to realize this choir boy reputation the Thunder have is a facade. This is a tough, hard-nosed team that’s playing with an edge this season. Kevin Durant is drawing technicals, Kendrick Perkins is getting into shoving matches on nearly every possession and Russell Westbrook seems bent on proving all the doubters wrong.
In other words, the youngsters have finally realized you can’t be nice and win NBA championships. It will be fun to see how this newfound toughness carries over into May and June.
3. San Antonio Spurs
Losing Tony Parker may just have been the crippling blow that leaves San Antonio’s journey for a No. 1 seed dead in the water. The Spurs were 5.3 points per 100 possessions better with Parker on the floor, per NBA.com, and the point guard’s utterly brilliant offensive season had him getting some very real bronze medal consideration in the MVP race.
Now, San Antonio will get the opportunity to see just how much its offensive efficiency was reliant on Parker. Something tells me Gregg Popovich won’t enjoy the result—especially once the Spurs’ schedule strength starts ratcheting up.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
Speaking of teams whose journeys are contingent on the health of their point guard, Chris Paul’s importance to the Clippers cannot go understated. The team scores 111.3 points per 100 possessions with Paul on the floor and just 100.5 points when he sits. The former rate would rank ahead of the Thunder’s league-best mark, while the latter would be nestled right alongside the Boston Celtics for 21st, per NBA.com.
Though Paul (and the Clippers as a result) has looked in top form since his return, there may be no more important player in the league than CP3. Without Paul, the Clippers are a borderline playoff team. With him, they’re an NBA championship contender.
That’s just something to keep an eye on every time Paul’s face shows even the slightest sign of discomfort.
5. Indiana Pacers
This Pacers team may be the poster child for why we need better advanced metrics in basketball. Sure, Indiana leads the NBA in defensive efficiency, opponent field-goal percentage and interior defensive efficiency.
But there has yet to be anything that can quantify just how good Frank Vogel’s squad has become at overall team defense. Paul George, who is arguably one of the league’s 15 best players at this point, is just as good on the defensive end as he is as a primary scorer. For all of his problems on the offensive end, Roy Hibbert continues to earn his money against opposing big men. Same for Lance Stephenson, whose excellence on the perimeter has been a more than welcomed addition. And David West continues to be one of the game’s most underrated talents.
Even more encouraging has been the Pacers’ recent ascent on the offensive end. They are scoring 107.6 points per 100 possessions over their past 15 games, a rate that would rank fourth overall behind only Miami, Oklahoma City and New York. That’s a massive improvement since Indiana started the season cratering points and needing to win games in pre-shot clock fashion.
With Danny Granger’s return still very much up in the air, the continued offensive excellence of the Pacers’ current rotation will hold the key to their playoff journey.
6. Denver Nuggets
One of the overarching arguments against the Nuggets being a “contender” was their lack of superstar. They had all of the depth in the world, but who was going to shoot the last shot in a Game 7 situation?
Well, Ty Lawson seems to be answering that question. The former North Carolina star, whose season started in the tank, has been nothing short of sensational lately. Over Denver’s past 20 games, Lawson is averaging 20.5 points, 7.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game—making himself a Rocky Mountain high version of Tony Parker.
George Karl’s confusing rotations and the team’s interior defense problems could still hold the Nuggets back. But if they are an early ouster come playoff time, it won’t be because they didn’t have a star player.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
Blasting Grizzlies management for trading Rudy Gay—and thus ending all chances of Memphis winning a title this season—has become overblown. This team was never winning a title this year barring a major injury, and Memphis saved a ton of long-term cash in the deal.
That’s today’s NBA, folks. Get used to it.
8. New York Knicks
Let’s all back away from the crazy pills and stop talking about the Knicks’ “demise” from their 18-5 start. Yes, they have hovered around the .500 mark since those first 23 games and have seen a noticeable drop-off in just about every important category.
But that had to be expected. The early-season Knicks were the embodiment of best-case scenario. They knocked down threes at an unsustainable rate, stayed completely healthy (save for Amar’e Stoudemire) despite being a team of geriatrics and looked fully committed to a year-long tear.
That Knicks team wasn’t sticking around. Neither will the .500 version. The truth for this squad is somewhere in between; not a championship contender but hardly a threat for a first-round exit.
9. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers’ loss to the Thunder on Tuesday was an understandable blip. Getting destroyed by the New Orleans Hornets—as they nearly did on Wednesday—would have been embarrassing for everyone involved. An utterly brilliant second-half comeback, spurred yet again by Kobe Bryant, saved the NBA’s most dissected team from getting a raking over the coals.
They can’t play defense, haven’t gotten requisite effort from their stars every night and are among the league’s worst-coached teams. But at least they didn’t lose to the Hornets. So there’s that.
10. Houston Rockets
Easily the league’s most exciting team, the Rockets astound with their brilliance on offense just as much as they confound with their putridity on defense. James Harden (deservedly) gets much of the credit for Houston’s shocking playoff contention, but it’s the rise of the team’s secondary stars that should catch most fans’ eyeballs down the stretch.
Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin have all had their intermittent moments of stardom this season. One of them finding a happy consistency and becoming that second-in-command player will be critical, not only down the stretch this season but going forward.
11. Boston Celtics
Somewhere (or everywhere) in the Greater Massachusetts area, a Celtics fan sat at a bar and groused about the team’s victory over Indiana on Wednesday. He’ll speak of the hard-as-nails toughness the team has showed since Rajon Rondo’s injury; about how Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce staying in Boston despite the championship odds should be in the first paragraph of their Celtics legacies; about how, hey guys, that Jordan Crawford kid ain’t that bad.
And you know what? That fan is right—at least about the first two points.
12. Brooklyn Nets
The Nets whiffed on their countless attempts to make a splash at the deadline, leaving them stuck with the players who got them here. Deron Williams has showed some signs of life since the All-Star break, which should give hope that he could return to $100 million man form. But whenever your team has to play Reggie Evans 25 minutes a night, it’s probably not headed that far during the postseason.
Still, P.J. Carlesimo has done an admirable job taking over for Avery Johnson midseason and has kept the ship afloat. With Brook Lopez turning into a star, the future may be brighter than some care to admit for the Nets.
13. Golden State Warriors
The Warriors would be happy to hear “good effort” on any play as it specifically pertains to their defense. After surprising many with their above-average effort on defense in the season’s first two months, the numbers have taken a long walk off a short cliff of late.
Golden State gave up an astounding 111.3 points per 100 possessions in the month of February, a number that almost makes the Kings almost look like the Pacers. The return of Andrew Bogut was supposed to fill the sieve in the middle, but he’s been unable to have a real impact.
No matter how many brilliant performances Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson or any Warriors shooter has under his belt, it will not matter if they continue allowing opponents to score at will.
In fact, it may wind up costing them a playoff spot.
14. Chicago Bulls
Until we know whether or not Derrick Rose will return this season, the Bulls remain in a state of limbo. We’ve seen enough to know they’re a playoff team without Rose and that they can contend on any night.
But Joakim Noah, despite his excellent season, isn’t going to be the best player on a team that advances past the first round. Tom Thibodeau, if he hopes to contend this season, needs his superstar back. Until we know whether or not that will happen, it’s hard to say anything about the Bulls other than “good job, good effort.”
15. Atlanta Hawks
Now that all the Josh Smith drama has subsided, the Hawks can go back to being what they are: A perfectly respectable team that’s on a collision course with a first-round playoff exit. So exactly like last season, only different. Or something.
16. Utah Jazz
It’s still unfathomable that the Jazz were silent at the trade deadline. Though that can be said for a ton of teams during a quiet trade period, Utah’s decision to keep Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson will be even more shortsighted if the team misses the playoffs.
With five losses in their last six games and the Lakers coming on strong, that’s looking more likely than ever.
17. Milwaukee Bucks
With all three players likely headed toward some form of free agency this summer, the Bucks’ top trio of guards bears watching going forward. Jim Boylan has insisted on playing J.J. Redick, Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings together in some lineups, but has done so to little success. Milwaukee is being outscored by over six points per 36 minutes with the guard trio on the floor, per NBA.com, and has understandably cratered defensively.
Obviously, not all three will be back next season. But it will be an interesting litmus test down the stretch to see which duo plays best together and whether that influences the Bucks’ decision this summer.
18. Dallas Mavericks
Dirk Nowitzki’s slow return to form finally seems to be paying dividends and the Mavericks have emerged as a possibly dangerous team down the stretch. They have beaten both Brooklyn and Houston over the past week and still have an outside shot at a postseason berth with a massive run down the stretch.
It’s likely that Dallas started in too deep of a hole to dig itself out, but Nowitzki could have some fun playing spoiler to contending teams in the process.
19. Portland Trail Blazers
If the Blazers had anything even resembling a bench unit, they would probably be headed toward a playoff berth rather than a downward spiral. But alas, Portland has by far the worst bench in the league, scoring just 17.8 points per game, and has crumbled as its starters have struggled on both ends.
With a 3-9 record in their last 12 games, the Blazers may as well write off any faint playoff hopes they did have and work toward figuring out how to fix their woes in the offseason.
20. Toronto Raptors
The bloom may be off the rose for the Rudy Gay era in Toronto. After countless Raptors fans touted their initial surge following the forward’s addition, the team has gone into a tailspin once again, losing its past five contests.
As for Gay, he continues to be absolutely dreadful from the field. He’s shooting just 39.3 percent from the field since arriving in the Great White North, continuing a jarring de-evolution of his perimeter game. With the Raptors banking on Gay to be their star now and into the future, he’s going to have to show something down the stretch.
Otherwise, let the speculation begin about yet another massive miscalculation of funds by Bryan Colangelo.
21. Philadelphia 76ers
When they write the book about the 2012-13 Sixers—and believe me, they will and it will sell no fewer than eight copies—the story will center on injuries and utterly anemic offense. Andrew Bynum is less likely by the day to ever make his debut in Philadelphia this season, and he may never become the superstar the Sixers coveted.
As for their offense...oh boy. Over its past 15 games, Philadelphia has scored 94.5 points per 100 possessions, a rate that is a full point-and-a-half below the Wizards’ league-worst average.
Jrue Holiday has been a bright spot, but other than him, there is a bungalow full of questions with a fraction of as many answers in Philadelphia.
22. Washington Wizards
Even if the Wizards’ 8-5 record over their past 13 games is a better representation of who this team will be come 2013-14, the nation’s capital cannot be all that excited about a team hovering around the .500 mark.
John Wall’s arrival has been a revelation for Bradley Beal’s development, but the young point guard still has a long way to go himself. He’s still a big red minus as a jump shooter, making just one three-pointer in 25 games this season. And though he has a noted reputation as a captivating finisher at the rim, Wall is just league average at the cup this season, per NBA.com.
With just one season remaining before he’s due a big extension, Wall is going to have to prove his worth over the next year-plus—and not just to the development of other players.
23. Cleveland Cavaliers
Kyrie Irving is the face of the franchise, but it’s becoming readily apparent that the Cavs may have nailed their past two drafts. Tristan Thompson has been a revelation since joining the starting lineup, and Dion Waiters has improved from a ghastly start to shoot over 50 percent in February.
Another high lottery pick awaits, and while you can expect the unexpected when it comes to who Cleveland will take, it’s hard to bet against that player at this point.
24. Minnesota Timberwolves
This is the NBA’s “what could have been” team of 2012-13. Had Brandon Roy’s knees not gone haywire, had Kevin Love’s hand decided it was made out of Legos, had Chase Budinger not succumb to injury, then the Timberwolves could have been an interesting playoff contender
25. New Orleans Hornets
Essentially, New Orleans needs to hope its impending nickname change brings better luck going forward. Anthony Davis has been nicked up all season, Austin Rivers was dreadful before going down with a broken hand on Wednesday and Eric Gordon’s play hasn’t exactly screamed max contract since returning to the lineup.
26. Phoenix Suns
The Suns have the following three things going for them: the Morris Twins (TWINS!), Goran Dragic’s development into a solid starting point guard and the fact that the Hornets matched their offer sheet for Eric Gordon last summer. And that’s about it.
27. Detroit Pistons
Andre Drummond’s back injury is one of the more under-covered disappointments of this season. The rookie seven-footer has missed each of the Pistons’ past 13 games due to a stress fracture in his back, putting his long-term development in a holding pattern.
Though Lawrence Frank has, for whatever reason, refused to play Drummond extended minutes this season, the season’s final quarter could have been about getting him a solid chemistry with Greg Monroe. Now Detroit is simply hoping to see him before the season ends.
28. Sacramento Kings
It’s hard to have any takeaways for this team until it knows what it is doing. The franchise doesn’t even know what city it will play in next season—let alone whether DeMarcus Cousins or any of the other building blocks will return.
During a time where the Kings should be focusing on creating chemistry for the future, they’re wading in the water and looking for answers. Something tells me that will be the case come 2013-14 as well—no matter which city the franchise calls home.
29. Orlando Magic
Orlando’s players go out and bring it every night for Jacque Vaughn, but this was a team built specifically to be one of the league’s worst teams. Ripe with young, unproven talent, the next season or so will be about rebuilding around those players in the post-Dwight Howard era and hoping to strike a star along the way.
As long as there is growth—no matter how minimal—on a nightly basis, the Magic will be satisfied.
30. Charlotte Bobcats
The Bobcats are a wretched basketball team, but there are workable parts that point toward a semi-bright future for Charlotte.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, though he’s hit the rookie wall shooting-wise, has already emerged as a stellar perimeter defender and will only continue to improve. Kemba Walker, who looked bust-worthy last season, has become an offensive force who will only benefit from his ball-dominating responsibilities.
Other than those two, well...let’s just say there’s a reason I used the word “semi-bright.”
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